Russell Crowe has made many films better than “The Pope’s Exorcist,” and a few one could label as objectively “worse.” But he’s never made a more cynical movie, a shameless late-career grasp at that which he eschewed back when the offers were more plentiful — a “franchise.”
He and the creative team behind this thriller start with the real-life Father Gabriele Amorth, Exorcist of the Diocese of Rome. They fictionalize that biography into a tale of a late 1980s contest between Satan, in his demonic “200 fallen angels” guises, and the Pope’s top demon-destroyer.
The character is canonical and papal and whimsical, with the catch-phrase “Cuck-oo” which he trots out to tease nuns and passersby on the streets of Italy and Spain and in the halls of the Vatican.
He wears a fedora. He totes a big, boxy exorcist’s tool-kit case, filled with talismans, crucifixes, papal seals and the like. Father Amorth also keeps a whisky flask handy and a few choice profanities on the tip of his tongue.
And he rides into battle with an Exorcist-mobile, an ’80s Vespa in the white and red livery of the Holy See, a vehicle which takes him to Italian house calls, and all the way to the north of Spain.
Father Amorth must have a chiropracter on call, wherever he goes.
All he lacks is a Marvel cape and some DC tights and we’d have ourselves a priestly superhero — CatholicMan!
The thriller’s opening gambit has the Vatican send Father Amorth into the Itialian countryside where a young man is possessed, and the priest comforts the lad’s much younger sister by imploring her to recite “the Our Fathers” over and over again as he sets about his work.
Heaven help her future feelings of guilt if the swaggering priest fails.
Amorth teases the demon, baits and antoganizes “him” as a member of the family brings a prized hog in and we see where this is going before the Dark One does. “Satan,” as the demon identifies himself, is tricked into taking possession of the pig instead of the young man, a pig which is promptly dispatched.
Crowe’s Father Amorth smiles wryly with the audience at this turn of events. We know what he must have figured out long ago. Satan or Lucifer or Old Scratch as he’s called around the globe, is something of a dumbass.
The main test of the narrative is an American family — a mother (Alex Essoe), her rebellious teen (Laurel Marsden) and the little boy (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) who hasn’t spoken since his father’s gruesome death a year before, but who takes up talking when another of heaven’s “fallen angels” takes possession of him in a mysterious abbey that the family inherited in Spanish Castille.
Daniel Zovatto is the young Spanish priest who has the process explained to him (as the audience’s surrogate) as he witnesses this horrific battle of wills and suffers at the hands of the demon. Father Amorth — with a little help from a Pope (Franco Nero) who does his “own research” — uncovers the truth about this demon and that piece of Spanish real estate.
Crowe seems to impose his own sense of fun on the proceedings, which gives it a light touch even when it should have fear-for-the-victims’ lives gravitas.
The film that starts Father Amorth’s saga has a wink here and a sign of the cross there, Latin and Italian dialogue and accents, a “modern” sensibility.” Tis exorcist understands psychology, and that most of his “possessions” are people in need of counseling, group therapy and medication, not having demons cast out.
But as “The Pope’s Exorcist” settles into key conflict, exorcist vs. a Devil who wants revenge for his losses, the plot loses track of the victims Father Amorth is supposed to be helping and “saving” for stretches.
Crowe may have a bit of fun with this, but state-of-the-art effects don’t necessarily translate into shocks or frights, which are kind of the point.
Maybe “The Pope’s Exorcist” will inspire sequels, setting up Crowe for life. All I took away from it was a curiosity about whether Vespa actually offers a “Vatican edition” paint job. I can find my own Ferrari sticker to decorate it.
Rating: R for violent content, language, sexual references and some nudity
Cast: Russell Crowe, Daniel Zovatto, Alex Essoe, Laurel Marsden, Peter DeSouza-Feighoney and Franco Nero.
Credits: Directed by Julius Avery, scripted by Michael Petroni and Evan Spiliotopoulos. A Sony/Screen Gems release.
Running time: 1:40